12/29/2001, 5:30 pm, Bangkok
From the travelogue list:
I’m am currently in Bangkok’s airport en route to Vientiane, Laos, tapping out this message on a keyboard with Thai characters in addition to the Arabic ones. Laos will be likely be more challenging than my wonderful stay in the city-state of Singapore, where I was cared with generous hospitality by my friend Aji.
Singapore is an easy place to adjust to, coming from the West. It’s clean, and exceedingly well-organized by a government which cares for its population and quality of life, even if that care sometimes shows up as dramatic fines for chewing gum or jaywalking. It’s a diverse city with people and cuisines who hail from throughout Asia, the focus in both food and ethnicities being Chinese, Malay & Indian in that order.
I don’t have my thoughts organized well enough to string together very interesting prose, but I’ll share a few observations…
+ City of the Future and Land of the Hand Phone
If, ten years ago, you asked me to picture a city for a science fiction novel, the images in my head would look a lot like Singapore. A sleek, quiet light rail system called the MRT connects the city east to west and north to south. Payment works with plastic cards read on entry and exit similar to the Metro in Washington DC. Striking architecture in structures like the Singapore Post
building remind me of the Jetsons. Touchscreen computers abound, offering information, government services, bill-payment, email access, or all of the above.
Aji studies in a diploma program at Temasek Polytechnic University called Mechatronics — a combination of robotics and artificial intelligence. Singapore’s extended him a full scholarship in exchange for a three-year commitment to work for a Singaporean company.
Cell phones, called “hand phones” here, are everywhere. In the hands of men and women, children as your as ten, the poor and the rich alike. Friends send each other text messages via their phones all day long, able to tap out messages with their thumbs without looking at the screens. Coverage is near complete, not too difficult for a country whose perimeter you can cover by car
in three hours, and the service is inexpensive. Phones are a fashion statement, with covers, pouches and accessories de rigeur for Singapore’s teens.
+ Daily Life: Food Courts, Singlish, and HDBs
When people are yapping away on their phones on the MRT, as about 25% of a train car is bound to me at any given point (another 10% is texting!), they’re speaking one of three languages. Chinese (Mandarin, specifically), Malay, or Singlish. Singlish is the name for English as it’s spoken colloquially in Singapore. Signature Singlish is the tagging a long “lah” onto the end of any statment. It doesn’t particularly mean anything, lah. Just a way to emphasize your point a bit, lah. It’s most evident in the speech of Singapore’s youth, like Ben, one of the star students in Aji’s Mechatronics program. (He’s described as a Chinese gangster, or “ah-beng”. Besides hip dress and slang-y speak, the best quality of ah-bengs I could discern was that they like video games, date ah-liens and are afraid of the Singapore police.) The other most common Singlish is the use of “can” by itself, or twice… as in: “Is eight o’clock good for you for dinner?” “Can can.” It’s weirder to hear your native tongue spoken so differently around you than it is to be immersed in a
completely foreign one. It’s sort of charming, though, and I found myself experimenting with it within a few days, to the great delight of Aji’s friends.
The food scene in Singapore is awesome. At one meal in “Lau Pa Sat” (translated as “big market”), I had a samosa (Indian), claypot tau-fu (read it as tofu — it’s chinese), and popiah (Singapore-style). The dishes were collected from three different stalls at the market. In total, there were at least 75 to choose from. Needless, to say, it took me an hour of wandering just to decide what to eat.
Aji lives with seven other students, six Indians and one from Mauritius, a small island state that I’d have to look up to tell you where it is. They live in a flat in HDB housing, like many Singaporean families. HDB stands for Housing Development Board, and the complexes are easily identified by the characteristic qualities: a group of 5 to 20 buildings, identically constructed, identically painted, in a cluster. The have good shared common space (though the spaces are posted with prohibitions against doing fun stuff like ball-playing, rollerblading, playing music and bicycle riding) and grocery stores on the premises, often a store from the government subsidized “Fairprice” chain.
+ Onward, Onward, Guitar in Hand
I’ve got to run to catch my flight to Laos, now. On my back is a Yamaha guitar, courtesy of Aji’s incredibly generous girlfriend Sheila. I’ve named it Singapore Devi, after Sheila’s hometown and and last name. I’ll play with love and gratitude.
More soon from another land. Happy to new year to one and all.
All my best,